Waking up to bright light shining through my eyelids, turning my world red, I blinked my eyes open. There was no Orb, the light was sunlight coming in from the window. It was just after dawn, hints of red and orange still coloured the sky. The sun itself barely more than a sliver on the horizon, wreathed in frayed wisps of cloud.
I reached down and absently scratched at my leg, it itched. My whole body ached but in a good-just-woken-up-and-need-to-move-way. I flipped the blanket off me, the cool air rushed in, tightening my skin. Getting up didn’t hurt, my leg took my weight, it didn’t shake or show any weakness. There was a vague mark reminiscent of the bite but there was nothing to feel, just a blue stain on my skin.
I padded over to the basin, had a wash, the fresh water dispelling any lingering lethargy. Getting dressed showed the paucity of my wardrobe, one uniform down two left, I would have to fill in the forms to requisition a new set soon, but that could wait for now. I had an appointment to keep.
I smiled, my very own enchantment, before remembering where it was.
My old home, that had never actually felt like home, more like a prison of my own making. The Westhaven Mage Academy. It was close to my new apartment which was a plus, I didn’t want to strain my leg. It might feel healed but it wasn’t worth the risk. Slow and steady. The Academy is huge and I didn’t have a clue which room I would be in or who I would be seeing. Enchantments are a fairly generic skill among mages but the real masters were rarities. I would probably be with someone with limited skill but greater experience, which suited me fine. Mages that are highly skilled in one area are normally half mad or at least very odd.
I set off at a steady place down the hall in my building, there were no windows in the centre of the building, but light was provided by glow-globes set in the ceiling. This building was new, something else had been here before this but I couldn’t recall what it was. Something small, maybe dilapidated house or a leather workers. I shrugged it aside. The plaster on the walls was still soft and the air which should have been close and cloying was fresh still smelling vaguely of wood shavings and paint. At the end of my hall I had a choice, I lived on the third floor, the top floor. I could use the small stairwell or the floating stone disc that hovering in the middle of a shaft cut through the core of the building. It was a new thing that had been imported from the wizard towers in Greenlaw I’d tried it when I moved in and it was a bit disorienting. A lurch in the stomach as it fell. But it was better than risking a tumble on the stairs. Stepping on to the disc, it didn’t move despite no visible support. I stood was in the middle away from the edges, not that being on the edge was dangerous, it was protected, but it was still terrifying for me. The idea of the walls of the shaft rubbing the skin off as I fell. Too much like the pit and the gnome from yesterday. So much like yesterday that I almost changed my mind about taking the stairs. Stilling my rising claustrophobia, I called out, “Ground floor.”
The enchantments took care of the rest, I could sense the faintest hint of what was happening but I didn’t look. The bottom fell out of my stomach in a strange rising fall. Then the disc settled and revealed the ground floor lobby.
A simple room that provided access to the rest the building, the shaft at the back where I now stood. On the sides there were hallways leading off to more apartments. I had yet to meet a neighbour but its only been a few days. It’s not every day that a mage moves in. I walked over the polished stone floor, my boots clicking with every step. I opened the wide door and stepped onto the street. Early morning is a wonderful time to be out and about. The crisp scent of dawn mixed with the smells of baking bread. Sounds quiet but clear, people getting up and going about their business, work, children going to the small school run by educated sleepers, teaching reading writing and basic maths. Their chatter and inane-but-cheerful questioning made me smile.
I made my way through the sparse but increasing traffic, taking in the space. The streets were wide and smoothly flowing, almost sinuous. Even the straight parts curved ever slightly. The central plaza with its fountain lined up exactly with each of the four gates, but the path between them wove, meandered gently like a stream. Smaller, thinner paths branched of like tributaries leading to the more residential parts of town. Westhaven was far bigger than it needed to be, it could hold easily about fifty thousand people. Over a quarter stood empty. The level of surviving refugees had been vastly over estimated. In time it would be filled.
Just off the main plaza with its amazing fountain, the source of all water in the town, was the Mage academy. The fountain is fed by an underground river, diverted to anywhere it was needed. The Academy seemed to suck all the light from the air and with it my warmth and optimism. It was built of a deep black, fine grained stone, far darker than the rest of the town. The stark contrast set it apart, another divide between mages and the common people. It was tall and foreboding, dominating this part of town. Its shadow seemed to reach out and devour all in its path. The world was a tiny bit darker just for having this building in it. As a child I had heard tales about it. Built on blood and darkness, the home of the ravens with the glittering eyes that feed of misery, I had heard a lot, none of it stopped me entering when my time came. And now my time had come again.
I’d spent a long time here, almost five turning of the seasons, never walking free, never seeing the sun except from short lessons in the gardens. Contact with outside influences was restricted, twice a month in the early turns but even family lost touch as the training got more intense. The isolation and frustration were supposedly good for the development of our abilities. Fewer distractions. Higher emotions to fight through. All in order to make our use of magic more intuitive, more easily. Its hard to do some of the finer applications when you have to concentrate on merely holding your power. The training eliminated the need for conscious control so you could focus on what needed to be done.
While I was lost in recollection the sun’s light slanted over the nearby buildings, falling on my face. The warm golden light broke me out of the spell. No more delaying. I took a deep breath of the fresh morning air, still cool from the night, and stepped up to the doors.
They were much the same as the rest of the building, massive, far beyond what was really needed. Thick, darkly stained oak covered in carvings and glyphs, they swung open at my touch. A mage is always recognised by these doors. The raven’s roost welcomes all ravens.
I stepped into darkness.
As I walked in lights flickered to life, old style glow globes that didn’t glow. These burnt with fire trapped inside. The darkness receded to the edges of the room where it hung in swathes of shadows. The hall was imposing, huge and empty, cold. It discouraged visitors, fitting the legends that surrounded this place. At the end on the long hall was a large desk set in the middle between the only two corridors out of the hall. The chair behind it sat empty. On the desk was a glowing glyph screen, its clear substance filled with motes of light.
I laid my hand on the surface.
“Junior Mage Sodden, attend me in research lab seven. This screen will guide you.” A voice I knew very well informed me; my old mentor Elder Mage Jase.
Picking up the screen I saw the motes forming into a map of the building, a glimmering line showing the route I must take. With a deep sigh I set off to the corridor on my left.
The map led me down wide corridors, burning globes lit my way with flickering treasonous light, down past the aspirant cells. Iron doors with clear crystal glyphs recessed into the black stone walls. My old cell was here. I was tempted to access the crystal and find out who had taken my place, but the map led me on further past the cells taking the decision out of my hands. The smell of damp stone and iron brought back memories best faced in the light of day, there was no daylight to be found down here.
I reached the research area shortly after, it was where the masters work rooms were. We had walked past them everyday on the way to the training rooms, although that didn’t help much when travelling through this warren of rooms and corridors. It was confusing, even living here for so long didn’t give me much to work with. All the corridors looked the same. Without the map I would have wandered for a long time. Just off from the masters workrooms was a small corridor, barely noticeable if it wasn’t for the map guiding me. I turned down and saw rows of staggered doors. Each one had a large central glyph representing a number. Room seven was on my left, a new glowing globe set above the door, glowing green.
I set my feet and prepared myself before laying my hand on the door, a small ring like a tiny bell sounded and the door opened.
Elder mage Jase looked exactly as I remembered him, it had only been a week, but it felt like a lifetime. Taller than me, slim almost ill looking, he had ghostly skin that emphasized his bright blue glowing eyes and his straight black, shoulder length hair. He was standing, there smiling at me.
“Come in my boy, come in.” He gestured with a gloved hand.
I came closer, uncomfortable standing near the man who had beaten and starved me when he felt I wasn’t trying hard enough. As if he sensed my discomfort he spoke.
“I hope you don’t bear me any ill will Tristan. It’s how we are all trained, you know. So many don’t make any effort to develop their magic, we have to be sure the ones who do are the right sort. Yes it’s harsh and grossly unfair, but everything needs to be earnt to be appreciated, if it was easy undesirables would gain our power.”
“Yes Sir I do understand, but I don’t have to like it.” I retorted, barely keeping respectful.
“You were a special case, we had to be harder on you because you were so much quicker than the others, we had to be sure!”
I gritted my teeth through his little speech.
“Let’s drop the subject, on to business,” he said quickly. His expression turned softer as he gazed at me, regret and no it couldn’t be, but shame. The expression vanished so quickly I doubted what I’d seen, a calm business like mask replacing it.
“Your first custom enchantment is unique, all the others are standard, this one is personal. What do you would serve you well? A weapon? Defence maybe?”
I’d been thinking about it. While healing would be useful, not getting hurt in the first place would suit me better. Pain is not my friend.
“A defence would be best for my abilities I think Sir.”
“Right, let’s do that. As a Mage, you are not limited to the base ‘elements’.” Jase did air quotes around elements to complement his sarcastic tone.
“You should understand by now that they are not ‘elements’, they are associated concepts that allow you to relate to your magic.” I nodded. Of course I knew, he had been the one to beat it into me.
“We need to build the architecture, you have never done this. All the enchantment you have dealt with are either infusing a prepared device or voiding a faulty one.” Jase paused for a moment, looking around his workroom.
“This can be done in one of two ways, wild or controlled. Both have advantages and drawbacks. Controlled is a studied effect, carefully built, as most of the recent developments have been. Wild is considerably more powerful, but less nuanced. First enchantment is always wild, so wild is the way we start.” As he was telling me this, he was looking through a pile of crystal discs. Seeming to decide on one he passed it over.
“As this is your first, you get a pure disc. All you need to do is summon your power and build the concept you want then just push it into the disc.”
I looked at this black disc. Defenceis an easy concept, everyone understands it.Reaching with my power into the disc, I tried to impress defence into it. saying that doesn’t cover the complexity of the task. a concept is more than just an idea or a thought, it is a tangled arrangement of thoughts, ideas memories and associations, all layered so that the concept can be compressed enough to be useful. Certain patterns were taught so that we could build concepts. They all did the same thing, compressing something vast into something that could be handled and manipulated. Oddly, the disc resisted. I ramped up the force until something stuck, an architecture form I had never seen before. Fluidic and sharp, it shifted under my sight, never settling. Slipping out of viewing, I found the disc had warped from a flat round shape to a curved oval.
Jase clapped like a child, his earlier smile returning full force.
“Well done, my boy. I was worried you wouldn’t manage it. Pass it over, let me have a look”
I held it out to him, but as he tried to grasp it it warped again, turning liquid and retreating up my hand to my wrist. I was shocked. I had never heard of enchantments having a mind of their own. All I could do was look at it.
“Sir, what’s going on?!” I asked, a hint of fear colouring my voice.
“Tristan, calm down. It’s perfectly normal; wild enchantments can only be held by their creator. All the devices you use every day are based on wild ones, eventually the form you used will settle down and you will be able to understand it, then you can teach it to others. I only asked to test that it was well done.” Jase’s tone was the same as when I graduated; calm but proud. That more than anything reassured me that he was telling the truth.
A question occurred to me.
“Sir why are we not taught this in school? Concept building isn’t overly taxing. Wouldn’t more people want to become mages?”
“Tristan, you have to realise how dangerous this information is. The wizards don’t want this known by the common people. It could mean the end of society! War, violence, widespread destruction, all would be possible if magic such as this fell into the wrong hands. The devices we provide are safe and reliable, wild magics are none of those things. Magic is complex, most just aren’t suited to wield it at higher levels.” Jase answered passionately. “When you have seen more, you will understand. Now, I have a busy day and you should go and test your new enchantment. I will log it as ‘success but unidentified’, until you figure out what it does.” He turned back to his work table, clearly done with me. I headed for the door
“Oh! Tristan, before I forget. Here is a shard on basic forms, you are authorised to enchant your equipment now you have a touch of experience. But no more wild magic, practice your forms for a while yet.” He rushed over to hand me a silver shard no bigger than my pendant. Then Jase smiled and turned away again as if I no longer existed. Absorbed in his work.
I went home. I had a lot to think about.
I sat in the chair gazing out the window at the darkening sky. Night was coming, light fled the coming darkness. The first early stars twinkled faintly high above. My hands were wrapped around a cup of cooling coffee, the heat radiating into my hands, warming and comforting. I raised the cup to drink then caught sight of my new adornment.
It had wrapped itself around my left wrist much like the bracers of some archaic armour, I couldn’t decide if it more like was a swordsman’s or an archer’s, one to defend the wearer from incoming strikes, the other to protect against the wearers own weapon, something in that thought felt significant, but I couldn’t say what. Its once black colouring had been replaced by a shifting blue green. Even the crystal it started off as felt more like metal, smooth, striated with colour
I opened my other senses to really look at it gave me a clear sight of a tangled mess. The central concept was dense with lines and threads, many smaller concepts flowed out of it before being led back in as if the enchantment danced. It was beautiful but it conveyed no meaning. Too convoluted and murky to pick apart what was doing what. I dropped my other sense and finished my drink. Cold coffee, bitter and thick on my tongue. Thankfully it was finished. I stood and walked over to the basin, rinsing the ceramic cup of the residue.
Night had finally fallen, the stars gained in brilliance, more appearing as I watched. My thoughts naturally went to what Jase had said about free magic and the wizard’s restrictions. If more people had known just what magic can do, more might have survived the waves, the dome might have been stronger, it wouldn’t have shattered at the end. Maybe the waves could have been stopped instead of us hiding and hoping. I thought. It took me a few moments to realize: If more knew, then the waves might have been far worse, any other conflict escalated beyond all control. Weapons in the hands of children, fools and the bloodthirsty. The thought horrified me. Better a world confined than wild magic.
I watched the moon rise, its glow casting shadows. All light casts shadows, even light in the darkness. Using the moonlight that filled my room I prepared for bed then laid down. Sleep came slowly.
After what seemed like forever I woke from a restless slumber filled with nightmares of flames and death. In my head was a burning. The air thick with heat and pain laden magic. The moon’s white light still shone through the window, tinted with flickering reds and oranges. I pulled myself up from my sweat soaked sheets and saw a pillar of flame shooting hundreds of feet into the sky, fighting the moon for control of the night’s light. It came from the east of town.
I rushed, pulling on my uniform and boots, then I threw myself into action. I couldn’t hear the bell. All towns have a warning bell installed normally in the mage headquarters but it wasn’t ringing. What that meant I didn’t know, but it couldn’t be good.
Flying down the stairwell and through the lobby I emerged into the cool night. I ran down the street heading to the central fountain, from their I should be able to see where to go.
As it reached the plaza a roaring stream of heated air burst from the road to the east. Civilians had left their homes and milled around aimlessly, unsure what was going on or what to do about it. I pulled water from the fountain, it flowed under my feet and up my body, taking the tightness from my skin. Pulling more water I ran towards the east, the heat getting more intense as I got closer to the source.
A wide pillar of fire rose from the street, in its core was a dark twisting shadow. Mixed with the roaring of flame and the hiss and crackle of stone heating was a human voice, almost unrecognisable as human. Its pain maddened screams filling the air. He was the source of the fire. The magic writhed, even without engaging my other senses I could feel it contorting.
The water I had with me started to heat but I cooled it with my magic. Water to soothe the flames.
I stepped closer hesitantly, calling more water from the air to shield me from the furnace. The water coated my hands and face cooling the air that I breathed. It still seared my lungs.
I opened my senses to find the cause and help the poor man, but my sight confirmed the feeling that had been growing inside me. his link was open, wide open. Way beyond normal capacity and was forcing power in its rawest form through him. I reached a water coated hand into the flames. Steam burst from me but kept the worst of the heat away.
This is raw wild magic. The thought ran through me. This is the horror of free magic.
I worked my way through the sheath of flames that coated the man, finally laying my hand on his head.
He wasn’t burnt yet, but he wouldn’t last much longer at the rate power was pouring through him.
I pushed my own power into him in an effort to close his link, his time was running out and his pain was crossing our connection.
I strained to tighten his link to close it before it finally consumed him, but it resisted all my efforts. The flames reached higher and the water coating me was almost gone.
Time ran out.
Fire licked his flesh, finally burning, and his screams reached higher than ever.
I knew what I had to do. I couldn’t help him but I could end his pain. I used my power to command the cracked and scorched paving to flow over his body, smothering the flames. Up higher it flowed covering him in cold liquid stone. My connection to the stone told me more than I wanted to know, I felt it slide down his throat, filling his stomach and lungs. I felt it in my own in sympathy, a tight gagging feeling like drowning. With a final twist I released my power, solidifying the stone.
A moment later the pillar died with him, collapsing into nothing. The heat dispersed on the freshly flowing breeze. Drying my eyes as my fallen tears sizzled on the hot stone coffin. The only sign left of a man who had lived and died here.